No it’s not the end of the month, but we are living in interesting times right now so we are bringing Midland up to speed regarding our current policing policy debate.
Tuesday February 21 saw the regular meeting of the Midland Police Service Board in Council Chambers, which was attended by members of MidlandCommunity.ca & the Mirror newspaper. Police Service Board meetings are generally pretty routine, where monthly statistics regarding calls & reported disturbances, finances and overall operational performance are discussed. Also from time to time, matters of special interest come before the Board and this meeting had several on the slate – or so we thought. We will focus on these “special interest” matters.
What was anticipated as the most controversial issue of the afternoon – the unauthorized release of confidential information – became somewhat overshadowed, but more on that in a moment.
First, some background for readers unfamiliar with the events surrounding the start of the O.P.P. costing process. As reported in the last MidlandCommunity.ca update, just before the Provincial Police made their official presentation to the Town of Midland, an employee of the Midland Police Service handed out a “comparison” information sheet which contained, among other notables, the total of the MPS 2017 budget which had not even been presented to Town Council. MidlandCommunity.ca believed that information to be confidential; apparently, members of the Police Service Board agreed and raised it in their meeting.
Chief Osborne identified himself as the source of this information; however, he rejected the notion that the budget number was confidential as he insisted that once the number had been agreed upon and reviewed by the Police Services Board, he believed it was no longer considered confidential. This is a break from past years. Chief Osborne explained that budgets used to be kept under wraps until released by Council because the numbers could reveal sensitive information, such as the reduction in staff resulting from outsourcing dispatch to Owen Sound. Apparently, he didn’t consider anything in this year’s budget sensitive, and he believed he was clear to openly discuss the un-approved 2017 budget figure.
The Chief wasn’t pressed to explain the appearance of details of the O.P.P. proposal on the same “comparison” sheet, again before those details were released to the public, and no explanation was volunteered. There is no question that protocol was breached; however, we are powerless under the existing system to hold anyone accountable. If there is a silver lining to this awkward behaviour, it is that the Police Service Board adopted a resolution that will make all future police budget discussions public deliberations to prevent further “misunderstandings”. Achieving transparency at any level is definitely progress.
As alluded to earlier, what ended up overshadowing the budget indiscretion was a letter sent by the Midland Police Association to the Midland Police Service and Police Service Board. In that submission, the Association raised their continuing observation that the Midland Police Service has been working short of full capacity for at least two years, and any plans to replace three departed members have been on hold for that period. When the Chief was asked if he would comment on the Association’s presentation he declined. At this point, the Board elected not to further address the letter but rather to refer it to the O.P.P. costing committee, since three members of the Board are also on that committee.
This letter is of critical importance, not only to the O.P.P. costing committee but also to Midlanders at large, because it lends further weight to the O.P.P. assessment that Midland needs up to four additional uniformed officers. As the Police Association emphasises, the short staffing “has created an environment where many of our members have been stretched thin”. They are looking for the Midland Police Service and Police Service Board to “remedy this problem” so their members can work “in a safe and suitable work environment”. The police association has identified valid health and safety concerns and has been very patient while waiting for a resolution, but they have reached the end of their rope. Overwork is always stressful, but when it is compounded by a high-stress profession like police work, judgment can be clouded, reflexes can be affected, behaviours can become unpredictable and the impact on an officer’s health as well as public safety can be devastating.
So why hasn’t this chronic understaffing been addressed? Perhaps it’s only because the Service was pressured to reign in a long history of dramatic budget increases. Perhaps it’s because hiring these replacement staff will bump up costs and make the Midland Police Service even less attractive when compared to the O.P.P. Perhaps it’s just bad management. In any case, members of Midland Police Service and service levels to the Town of Midland are both suffering.
This observation might come as a surprise to readers who have often heard MidlandCommunity.ca argue against the steep historic increases in the Town budget. If so, we must pause to emphasise that we have never been purely focused on budget numbers. Our mantra has always been efficient, effective and economical delivery of Town services. This letter from the Midland Police Association is further evidence that the Town of Midland cannot afford to deliver effective services via the historical model. We can only assume that, if the O.P.P. is sent packing, we will witness one of two situations. Either Midland Police Service will apply to hire more staff with a commensurate rise in annual operating expenses, or the Association will take the issue to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission and let the chips fall where they may. Either way, Midland residents and businesses will lose.
This is a very awkward yet telling time for Midland and its residents. Council needs to do what’s best for Midland and the valued employees of Midland Police Service.
Kevin Cowie and Steve Saltsman for MidlandCommunity.ca